Lyons, Colorado, population 2,000 or so lies at the foot of the steep Front Range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. High above the community, steep, russet sandstone outcroppings and evergreen-forested mountains rim the headwaters of the St. Vrain River. Two branches of this watercourse merge in Lyons. They are the pulsing aorta of Nature, giving life and energy to this valley community. Since the settlement of Lyons in the mid-1800s, many people have settled close to the hills and river floodplain. This is a friendly community of musicians and artists, family businesses, serenity, and Nature—in all its moods. Prelude Above Lyons, arranged on three sides like a natural amphitheater, stand the steep, canyon-carved foothills of the Rockies. A forest community of pines, junipers, scattered aspens and scraggly shrubs overlook the valley. Up top, summer daytime temperatures soar. The climate is arid: vegetation turns tinder-dry for lack of rain. Wildfires often blaze across these hills. If you climb up top and sift the incinerated topsoil through your fingers, you will feel something peculiar. Fires haven’t only burned trees; they have also scorched the ground. Rub this fire-charred soil between your fingers: it feels caramelized, reduced to hardened particles by intense wildfire. This effect is called “hydrophobic soil.” Rainwater does not soak into this material. It runs off the incinerated material, and carries topsoil, subsoil, gravel, rocks, roots and trees with it, all pouring downhill and into the river. This was the cascade of disaster that aimed directly for the downstream Town of Lyons. Deluge In September 2013 a massive serpentine tropical storm slithered from the Gulf of Mexico, and stalled for 7 days over the Front Range. The swollen St. Vrain river gushed out of its channels and formed new pathways down canyons and mountainsides, over highways and through towns. Floodwaters jumped their banks, flooding Lyons and downstream communities with turbulent muddy water, sand, trees, rocks, and debris. Roads collapsed in 100-ton chunks. Bridges buckled. Homes were destroyed. Homes and businesses lost power, potable water, and sewage. Everything was coated and cemented with dull brown silt—the ghostly signature of the deluge. The Way Back
The Town of Lyons was down, but not out. Slowly, achingly slowly, help arrived from federal, state, local and non-profit personnel and funding. Rebuilding has picked up over the last year. Municipal services and some businesses have returned. Planet Bluegrass, a national music venue and the artistic heart of the town, was rebuilt and opened (Bela Fleck headlining) on-schedule for the 2014 concert season. As always, the concert was sold-out. This was a proud moment, a huge shot of pride and energy for the Town. Lyons, the small Colorado river-town with the big heart, is rebuilding. For this is a resilient community, rebounding from disaster, planning better safeguards for the future, and never forgetting the powerful unpredictability of nature.
The 2013 flooding eclipses the Town of Lyons. It has been a warning shot across the Colorado Front Range, and for every community nestled in a dynamic landscape. Whether on the mountainside or seaside, we must prepare our long-term defenses against the cascade of natural disasters that surely will come again. It is a moral obligation and civic duty to keep people out of harm’s way by avoiding high-risk settlement in floodplains—long before the waters rise next time.